For the past three decades, members of astronomy clubs have gradually gotten older and grayer. Now officers of the Astronomical League are getting serious about changing that trend.
Mark Moretto is a high-school senior who persuaded comet expert Michael A'Hearn to let him help analyze results from NASA's Deep Impact mission. Initially skeptical, A'Hearn now admits that Moretto was "amazing, better than some of our grad students."
Henry Lin grew up in Shreveport, Louisiana — hardly a nexus of astronomical research. So he taught himself the intricacies of the Sunyaev–Zel'dovich effect (!) and how that might be applied to detecting dark matter in galaxy clusters.
Sophia Lahey, soon to start her senior year at Sir Francis Drake High School in Fairfax, California, doesn't look the part of a dark-sky warrior. But she's singlehandedly challenging local officials to adopt strict outdoor-lighting regulations to keep her hometown from being overrun with light pollution.
Although these three astro-achievers have very different backgrounds and interests, they have one thing in common: they were the only teenage attendees at this year's Astronomical League Convention (ALCon), which convened two weeks ago at Fernbank Science Center in Atlanta. Worse, they made the trip only because they'd won one of the League's annual awards.
All across the U.S., astronomy clubs are wrestling with the relentless aging of their members. Some of these "veterans" joined 40 or 50 years ago, as passionate youths eager to learn anything and everything astronomical. For many the interest is still there, but the passion is long gone. Today, most clubs would be thrilled to have a few teenagers or even 20- or 30-somethings in their midst.
To its credit, for 20 years the League has been trying to jump-start the next generation of stargazers with its National Young Astronomer Awards (NYAA), which these days includes a high-end Explore Scientific telescope and a sizable check. But clearly that's not enough of a draw. For example, the Amateur Telescope Makers of Boston (my local club) boasts 270 members. Yet only 10 of these are full-time students, and the membership rolls include just 22 families.
This is not a new problem, but it's becoming an urgent one for the League, which boasts 15,000 members in 250 affiliated clubs. So Ron Whitehead, the group's executive secretary, is spearheading an effort to find ways to bring younger astronomy devotees into the mix. "Young people today have plenty of choices," Whitehead notes, but increasingly those choices are "not to join an astronomy club or even to be interested in things astronomical."
John Goss, the League's vice president and coordinator of the NYAA program, is more blunt: "How do you approach teenagers who don't want to be in an old-man club?"
A dozen perspectives on causes and solutions appear in the March and June issues of The Reflector. There Goss details some of the underlying issues: light pollution's theft of dramatically dark night skies, beautiful space- and ground-based imagery that creates unrealistic expectations at the eyepiece, and risk-averse parents' unwillingness to let their children explore the world with unstructured freedom.
One big problem, Whitehead told me, is that most older club members don't how to relate to a younger audience — or are uncomfortable doing so. There's the hurdle of learning how to navigate social media, he says, but also it's getting into the Millennials' mindset. In their fast-paced world, entertainment value is a big plus, while anything that smacks of science is often disdained. Telling them about your first dreamy-eyed view of Saturn through a 60-mm refractor doesn't cut it anymore.
Ron Schmit of the Minnesota Astronomy Society recently watched some college-age kids viewing the popular "Star Walk" astronomy app. "Check this out," said the iPhone's owner. "It shows you the constellations right here! Isn't that sweet?" Then he spun around in a circle as the sky wheeled by on the phone's screen. "Cool," another said. "What's that?" "Yeah, I don't know," shrugged the owner, who then clicked off the app and shoved the phone into is pocket. "The whole exchange took less than 15 seconds," Schmit says. "It felt like he was showing them his new yo-yo trick."
The Long Path Ahead
Fortunately, the League is getting useful feedback from some of its youngest members. "The issue comes down to money and information," explains Joshua Babin, 23, of the Houston Astronomical Society. With equipment being so expensive and the Internet overflowing with detail on every subject, "it is very easy to pass up astronomy and take up video games."
"As cliché as it sounds," advises 17-year-old Courtney Flonta, the very young president of Virginia's Back Bay Amateur Astronomers, "using technology is the best way to communicate with younger people. A nicely designed, easy-to-navigate club website is a must. And replace the boring PowerPoint lectures ("too much like school") with more engaging, hands-on activities.
"There's a high expectation for instant gratification — I hate saying that, but it's true," admits Lahey, who was honored in Atlanta with Horkheimer/Smith Award for service to the astronomical community. Still, she thinks her generation can be won over. "Kids are smart," Fahey told the attendees. "Just give them a chance."
It's not that clubs are devoid of good ideas — and some of them do work. For example, since 1986 California's Sonoma County Astronomical Society has given away a total of 246 telescopes to local grade- and middle-school children through its Striking Sparks program. More recently, the New Hampshire Astronomical Society has kid-proofed dozens of Orion StarBlast reflectors and provided them to more than 70 libraries throughout the state. Goss thinks this Library Telescope Program could be rolled out nationwide.
I found lots of other solid ideas in those Reflector articles — everything from solar viewing at schools to providing transportation to and from star parties. But let's not confuse getting youngsters hooked on the night sky (relatively easy, methinks) and getting them to join a club (a long shot).
As Ted Forte of Arizona's Huachuca Astronomy Club sees it, the hobby can sustain itself without an infusion of young conscripts. Instead, the important thing is to plant seeds of interest that will sprout later in life. "If we see a lack of young members, maybe we are looking at it wrong," he says. "We should just see them as future old members."
So what do you think? Offer your experiences and suggestions in the comments below. (Trust me: the League's officers are eager to read them.)